Thursday, May 8, 2014


Intelligence is not an obvious phenomenon, and it's difficult to capture. The problem with its definition that many people have is that there are several useful ways to describe intelligence, but no single correct way. The context that surrounds your perception of intelligence has a lot to do with the differing opinions on the definition. For instance, are you concerned with intelligence in a problem solving sense, or in a creative sense, or what? Do you care about classifying memory, processing speed, attention span?

There are so many elements, that it seems impossible to capture them all. To do that, a lot of people think of intelligence like so:

We use a range of tests and tasks to gauge certain dimensions of mental capability, and we establish a scale of comparison by juxtaposing peoples' scores.

I prefer to look at intelligence like this:

or this:

Those are fractals, if you aren't already familiar with them. The thing about fractal structures is that they are extremely beautiful not in spite of, but as a result of a few simple rules. The rules that you choose determine the fractal that you get.
I think of the mind in this frame. I can change how "coarse" my measures of the mind are, in the same way that I could look at different sizes of chunks in these fractals. Now, in a real fractal, changing the scale that you look at doesn't actually change the fractal structure at all. You just see a replication of the same thing on any scale.

In the mind, this is not true. I can look at several different scales, along several dimensions. In a fractal, dimensions are weird. You don't always have 1D or 2D objects, you can easily find structures that are 1.33 dimensional. If you want to understand how that works, you need to read about fractals (because they're awesome) but for now, assume that the dimensions of the mind are weird too. Not only that, but like different fractals, the dimensions of different minds are not necessarily the same.

This is how I view the differentiating characteristics of individual minds. The beauty and uniqueness lies in the structure, rather than the measurements along a fixed axis. You can't measure something like color density in a Mandelbrot set and learn much about the fractal structure of the set; it seems just as silly to say that any of our current set of measures can classify a mind successfully. Our tests may indicate a person's suitability for a particular line of work, but that's akin to a chemical test in water that determines the amount of chlorine in it. You may know that there is chlorine in the water, but that tells you nothing of the pH, the calcium hardness, the alkalinity, and so on. You have to use multiple orthogonal measures to understand something completely.

And so this leaves us at a crossroads. If we wish to continue to use standardized testing to find intelligence, then we will be forced to define intelligence as the thing that we are testing for. Otherwise, intelligence will have to be reconceptualized as something deeply related to the structure of the mind, the nature of which cannot be determined by a single test. Intelligence would require a much more dynamic form of measurement, something attended to just as closely and experimentally as the measurements that scientists make. Note, that scientists aren't looking for a single measurement to solve every problem. Instead, the point is to find throw new measurement methods at a problem to learn more about the thing that you're looking at.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Complication vs. Complexity

There's a big difference between what's complicated and what's complex. It's something that's actually really important, and you should stop to think about it.

Complicated things are made up of lots of intricately interconnected parts, usually wildly different, and most definitely not simple to understand in structure.

Complex things do not have to be complicated. If you look at a school of fish, the schooling behavior rises out of a few very simple rules. The same for flocks of birds, or ant colonies, etc. Complex behavior is often manifested in the emergence of something unexpected from something simple.

You can build something very complicated that behaves very simply. You can create something very simple that exhibits complex behavior.


I wish that people would really think about the concept of equality from time to time. Equality is a really strong word, stronger than almost any word that I know. In fact, I don't know of anything that is really equal outside of elementary particles and maybe some atoms. So let me broach the idea of equality for a second, so that I can establish a different, perhaps more useful, qualification.

Equality means that two things are the same. If A equals B, then A is B, and B is A. Both of those statements have to be true. Now, when we say that all people are created equal, what do we really mean? Because nobody would say that all people are created the same.

I think that the point that people are trying to make when they say this famous line is the following: nobody is created better or worse than anyone else. That's a very different sentiment. See, inequality is what makes life exciting. The fact that people are different in structure, the fact that they operate differently, the fact that they are good at different things, this is what gives life flavor. We celebrate diversity, and that is good. What we need to change is what we mean when we celebrate equality, because that's the part that's been throwing us off.

I think that I understand why people get so hung up on equality. People get locked into a certain way of viewing people. We see certain dimensions of life, and we don't bother changing the light that we observe things in. Pay range. Social status. Physical beauty. If you end up putting everyone on the same scales, if you only look at certain aspects, then guess what? You can only tell if someone is "better or worse" in your eyes.

You can't just say something is better or worse than something else. You absolutely can't make this judgement without specifying: at what? In what respect is A better than B? By assuming that you don't have to add this information into your judgement, you're assuming that any other dimensions that you could take into account are irrelevant, and that is where the prejudice lies. That's the problem.

Racism, sexism, nationalism; those things aren't just a product of assuming that one person is better than another. It's a product of assuming that you don't have to take more than a few sets of judgements about someone into account. If we were all hammers, then it would be alright if we judged each other based only on our ability to drive nails into stuff. We're not, though, because life is complex, and there isn't any one way that we can look at someone.

So equality actually sucks. What we should celebrate isn't equality of people; it's the fact that as human beings, which have the capacity to insanely complex things, are all naturally capable of being badasses when given the right chance.

A Nice Basis for Living

I classify all of human activity in three dimensions: observation, thinking, and creation. Those pretty much encapsulate everything that I need to think about.

As a physics student, I work to perfect the observation process. Every observation is handled with care, nothing is left to the wind. I learn how to see every relevant side of something, and how to take the observations that I can collect and figure out everything that I can about the system that I'm observing.

As one who writes, I spend a lot of time thinking. I don't leave my ideas alone, I handle them frequently. I throw them against walls, I feel them, I mix them, sometimes I burn them. More often than not, I end up writing them down to give them some corporeal form, some permanence in the world. Basically, I organize the observations that I've made over time in my head by forcing myself to think them over and over again, and making myself articulate them.

And then, once I've found something complex, once I've figured out how something works, I have a couple of ways that I can exploit my ideas and make stuff. I'm a drummer. I can do some computer programming. I can organize people and groups. I use my ideas and concepts as ingredients, or tools, or templates, and I craft experiences.

And of course, once you create some new structure and throw it back out into the world, you start the whole process over again. Any good life plan should make some kind of feedback loop, so that you just keep doing cool stuff and never run out of new wonders.

How to Interpret This

I'm just going to blow through some ideas and observations, don't mind me. Everything is going to be posted in bursts, because that's how I think. I sit down for 5 hours, I drink a lot of coffee, listen to music, and I just write.

Maybe it's catharsis, maybe it's my way of understanding the world. It's really irrelevant, because I don't do it for any real reason outside of the pleasure that it gives me.

As such, it doesn't matter how you interpret this. I'm not trying to change your mind about anything, I'm just having fun. So sit back, grab a coffee/beer/water, and do whatever you're going to do today.